Fishing for information, Part II

August 27, 2009

The last of the data-gathering moorings to be plucked from the Bering Sea proved to be the most troublesome.

This one was several miles north of the Bering Strait in U.S. waters, and it took a few hours to steam up there in the Professor Khromov, the ship the RUSALCA team is using for the joint U.S.-Russian oceanographic expedition.

Once GPS pinpointed the location, the tech team in charge of retrieving the moorings sent the electronic signal that releases the chain of instruments and floats from the anchor on the ocean floor and waited. And waited. All on deck scanned around the ship for an orange ball on the water’s surface. It didn’t appear.

More beeps. Again, nothing.

After about 30 minutes, the mission’s chief scientist, Terry Whitledge, and Rebecca Woodgate, who is responsible for the mooring operations, put Plan B into action.

The high-tech gear, which has been gathering data on water content, temperature and other things 50 meters below the surface since last October, can’t just be left behind. It is key to the expedition’s mission of gauging the impact of global warming in the region.

This kind of trouble has been known to happen in the Arctic.

The new plan: slowly let out hundreds of meters of steel cable, weighed down by anchors, to scrape the ocean bottom in hopes of releasing the fouled-up mechanism. The Khromov’s captain, Alexander Dyachenko, steered the ship in wide circles. Mercifully, the sea was calm.

After about an hour of dragging the bottom, the buoy popped to the surface. From there, it was a snap to pull the mooring aboard, and the technicians went about trying to figure out what prevented it from releasing.

The episode was inconvenient, but no crisis, Woodgate said.

“I’ve been there before,” the British-born scientist said. “We’ve got a ship that can drag, so I’m not as desperate as I might otherwise be.”

Now, she and her team begin the process of placing new moorings in the ocean between the United States and Russia.

(Photo – Dan Naber, with the RUSALCA mission’s mooring team, readies an anchor to drag the floor of the Bering Sea in hopes of releasing a stuck data-gathering mooring on August 25, 2009. REUTERS/Jeffrey Jones)

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